RUSA Member Profile: Greg Olmstead of San Diego Randonneurs

In today’s RUSA Member Profile, we head to San Diego to talk with Greg Olmstead of the San Diego Randonneurs. Greg shares how he first became a randonneur, what it’s like to ride around San Diego, as well as his diligent pursuit of the American Explorer Award on his custom Zinn 74 cm (!!) randonneuring steed.

Which club is your home club?

I’ve been a member of San Diego Randonneurs since I started randonneuring in 2006. The club has undergone name changes coinciding with various changes in RBA, but the club itself has remained largely unchanged.

Lined up for 2007 PBP
What inspired your to begin randonneuring?

Randonneuring is the fourth generation of remedies for stress reduction. I started a business in 2002 and took long walks to both think about issues and to relieve the stress of starting a business.

I couldn’t walk far enough to eliminate the stress, so I started cycling around town using my old Nishiki commuter bike from college. I got up to riding 50 or so miles, which seemed to relieve more stress than walking but not all stress, but by that point I was interested in seeing how far I could ride.

Next, I started riding centuries for fun. I lazily assumed that if a century was fun then a double century would be twice as fun. In 2005, I was standing in the University of Washington parking lot, waiting for the start of the Seattle to Portland double century. The rider ahead of me was wearing a Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) 2003 jersey, and I made a mental note to find out what this ride was all about.

When I found out what it was about, I decided that PBP was where it was at, so I started riding brevets in 2006 to qualify for the 2007 edition.

How would you describe the terrain of the rides in your area?

San Diego is bounded to the south by Mexico and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. So you can ride north along the coast, which is almost always a treat. The drivers are very accustomed to seeing cyclists and we all seem to sort of get along.

To the east you have mountains; it’s possible to start at sea level and be at 6000 feet by the afternoon. Farther east, the mountains give way to the desert. It’s easy enough to find a terrain you like.

Any must-do rides around San Diego that you would recommend?

There are two types of rides I would recommend to riders who are visiting San Diego. First, I would recommend any of the rides that take you on Pacific Coast Highway, anywhere between San Diego and San Clemente. There’s always a wide shoulder, it’s safe, and the view is gorgeous. All along the way there are coffee houses and places to get quick bites to eat. You really can’t beat riding on Pacific Coast Highway.

The second type of ride is in the mountains. San Diego is home to two summits that are over 6000 feet: Mt Palomar and Laguna Mountain. The most popular climb up to Palomar is on South Grade road. From the bottom of the hill it is about 12 miles to the top. I usually set aside a little over 3 hours for the climb and about 20 minutes for the descent.

The other summit, Laguna Mountain has three approaches you can take: Sunrise Highway from the north, Sunrise Highway from the south, and Kitchen Creek Road. I find the last option the most pleasing. It’s a paved jeep trail blocked to all cars except forest service vehicles and bikes.

You can get out on the road and, except for the road itself, not see a single trace of development. No lights, no signs, no wires. Just you and about 11 miles of scrub brush at about four to six percent. It’s a great stretch of road without equal.

Somewhere in Arizona
What do you like about randonneuring?

I see randonneuring as managing a system of systems, some of which change quickly, and some of which change quite quickly. On any given ride, I have to manage nutrition, fueling, energy levels, gearing, clothing, mental focus, lighting, available storage on the bike, and so on.

Longer rides may require larger bags, which would weigh more. I may need to take warm clothing that I might use for only a couple hours at the end of a 300km brevet. But these add weight, which requires more food. The interplay of these different elements requires that I be engaged mentally.

On longer rides, my ability to stay focused seems to diminish. This requires another system to accommodate that inevitability. But staying on top of all that is a great mental challenge. And when all systems are working in harmony, I can sit up and take in all the beauty that lies before me.

All the sunsets, downpours, crashing waves, trees, beaches, country roads, native wildlife, the company of fellow cyclists, historical monuments, and so on. There’s a great big beautiful world out there.

It seems that you have really enjoyed pursuing the American Explorer Award. It reminds me of the runners who try to run a marathon in all 50 states. How do you plan these rides and manage to transport your bike and gear to do them?

My ambitions for the American Explorer Award started small and grew in scope over time. Initially, I had California, Arizona, and Oregon just as a matter of pursuing brevets. After the award was announced and I thought I’d drive the 5 hours to Las Vegas to get Nevada and then another couple hours past that to get to Utah. Because of high winds I wasn’t able to ride in Utah, so there I was with 4 states.

It occurred to me that I couldn’t just keep driving to a nearby state to complete a permanent in it. I’d have to fly, but the costs would add up if I did one state per flight. So I took time to figure out how to do six states in two rides that were close to each other.

This lead me in 2014 to ride the Mellifluous Meander to Mercersburg to get Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. I also created a new permanent, Coastal Cruise (East), that passed through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. That got me to ten states. I resolved to get more.

I hadn’t yet retrofitted my bike with S&S Couplers so toting my bike in a triathlon bike case was unwieldy and a bit expensive. I retrofitted it so that I could check it as regular luggage and could throw the cases in a taxi, if need be. Then I started getting states opportunistically.

When I visited my brother in Washington, I took my bike and rode a permanent. When I visited another brother in Idaho, I took my bike and rode a permanent. But this approach seemed scattershot and was likely going to take a long time to complete.

I stepped back and asked myself what I would need to do to be able to ride all 50 states plus D.C. What rides were available that were near airports, had the terrain that I liked, and had the distance that I liked? After I inventoried those rides, I set out to create my own routes that went through states that existing rides didn’t.

With my list complete I set out to do the rides on my list At some point I expanded the list to include U.S. Territories, which I thought were overlooked by RUSA riders. I added those to my list and kept at it. I’m at 53, and hope to get to 55. (56 if American Samoa can get its dog problem in check.)

My wife, Jean, and I in Anchorage. Photo Credit Lynne Greaves
You have volunteered on brevets, in addition to designing courses. What do you consider the most important factors to consider when designing a brevet?

When I design a route – especially a 400K or a 600K – I try to use it as a showcase for what southern California has to offer. I try to bring in a mix of coast, bike path, forest, desert, city, vineyards, and so on. But this is only one dimension to planning.

I try to route riders so that the daylight controls are easy to staff with volunteers, and the nighttime controls are at 24 hour stores. This seems obvious, but it’s not always easy to implement. It’s a balancing act between putting on a show and making it easy for the riders to get the support they need.

Do you have a favorite randonneuring bike?

I have only one randonneuring bike. It’s a custom built Zinn steel road bike. It’s a size 74cm frame, with 220mm cranks, and a 36 cm head tube. It’s big. After the Nishiki that I was using gave up the ghost – the chain stay snapped in half – I started looking for a replacement.

There was no shortage of bike builders but Zinn was the only one who suggested that I get long cranks because I’m 6’9”. None of the people that worked in local bike shops agreed with his analysis and recommendation, but somehow his rationale appealed to me.

I had Zinn build a bike, based on 220mm crank arms. This meant raising the bottom bracket so my pedal wouldn’t hit the ground were I to pedal while leaning into a turn, and it meant moving the head tube forward so my shoes didn’t touch the front wheel in a turn. After several years I retrofitted it with S&S couplers, which has enabled me to take it all over the U.S. and to Europe a couple times. I’ve put almost 40,000 km on that bike. I couldn’t have chosen better.

I see you’ve been riding a lot of populaires over the last couple of years. I mean, a lot! What is it about riding populaires versus longer rando rides that currently appeals to you?

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to try to get to 40,000 km to earn my Mondial award. I could get it by riding fewer but longer rides, or more and shorter rides, or some combination.

I ultimately settled into more and shorter rides. I found that I could start early in the morning and be done by just past lunch. I’d still have the rest of the afternoon to get things done, and enough energy to do them.

But settling into a routine of 100 km rides has its drawbacks. I was on a 149 km ride in Michigan, and when we got to the 100 km mark, my body sort of told me that it was done. The last 50 km or so were much harder than I expected.

On the banks of the Mississippi. Photo credit Erin Laine
Any future randonneuring goals? 

There are three goals on my to-do list. First, I am planning on riding a permanent in Puerto Rico and another one in St Croix, USVI. This will bring my American Explorer tally up to 55. Technically, it’s possible to create a route in American Samoa, but I need to wait until they get their feral dog problem under control before heading out there.

Second, I plan to get to 40,000km to earn my Mondial Award. Third, I would like to earn an International Super Randonneur. I need only a 300km ride, which I plan to do in Italy, this May. After I get these three crossed off my list, I’ll take a breather, and figure out my next steps.

If you had to choose a favorite randonneuring event, what would it be?

It’s not my nature to pick just one event that is better than all the others. There are a few that stand out, for different reasons. Any ride with a friend is going to be a special event; I prefer than to almost anything. I also did a ride out of Smyrna, Georgia (Lunch with Andy) with some of the local riders.

The route was a Rails to Trails project that followed the Silver Comet Trail. It went through a tunnel, over a trestle, through carved-out rock, and generally through the woods. The trees were greener than any green I’d seen. The riders couldn’t have been nicer. It was just a very relaxed, beautiful day on the bike.

Lastly, I would say that for sheer natural splendor, the Bird to Gird Populaire out of Anchorage was breathtaking. Riding on the highway shoulder is a bit nervy, but once you get up to the protected bike path and get in and amongst the forest and waterfalls, it’s very calming and wonderful.

Thanks again for being part of RUSA Member Profiles, Greg. And readers, if you think of a randonneur who would be a good candidate for a future interview please contact me and let me know! 

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